So what does Kind of Blue sound like to an admitted jazz novice?
A lifetime of music fandom and a voracious appetite for new things has given me a wide-ranging (if sometimes shallow) knowledge of musical styles, forms and history. Despite that, there are holes. Big holes. And some of those holes are, well, embarrassing. I've decided the time has come to fill those holes, with the help and guidance of some of my colleagues. Missing Links is a chronicle of those experiences.
Somehow, I missed out on jazz. Looking back, it's not all that surprising. The teenaged me had no time for something so dad-friendly, and after that, I was way too busy trying to explore the outer reaches of music, and then there was my years-long obsession with dance music, another half a dozen years or so years spent wandering in the indie rock wilderness, plus extended forays into everything from metal to Japanese pop and ... well, here we are. I have is one jazz album, and it's a weird one (Miles Davis's On the Corner, which sounds more like krautrock than jazz to my ears, which is why I love it).
Now, I am not completely ignorant of the form. I took a music appreciation course in college, and there was some jazz in that. I watch a lot of movies, and sometimes those have jazz soundtracks, or utilize famous songs on the soundtracks. I've had numerous jazz-fan friends play plenty of it in my presence, and even enjoyed a good bit of it. But I've never sat down and engaged with it. I've never immersed myself in an album and lived with it for a few weeks, or months, like I have with so many other things.
When it came time to rectify this imbalance, I went to the best jazz resource at hand: Backbeat's own Jon Solomon. When I asked him where to start, without hesitation he snapped off an answer: Miles Davis, Kind of Blue. That worked for me. By all accounts, it's one of the most important jazz albums in history, and I even already had some limited experience with the artist (On the Corner, remember?). I picked it up, prioritized it in my musical rotation and thus started my Kind of Blue period.
My first reaction, minutes after putting it on for the first time, was "Hey, I kind of already know this," because, well, it's impossible for a person with ears and a tendency to pay attention to music to not hear snatches of the most influential jazz album in history here and there. I don't know where precisely I heard those snippets of Kind of Blue in the past -- coffee shops? Hold music? Coming out of someone's apartment window on a hot summer night? All of those and more, probably.
Regardless, the effect was that my first listen didn't feel like a brand-new discovery, but rather a journey into a weird place of near nostalgia, a sonic venture that teased half-formed memories and vague emotions tied to them almost but not quite to the surface of my mind as I listened.
It was an unusual sensation, and a testament to the music, I believe. After all, despite the fact that I had only heard this music in passing, in a lifetime of music listening and consideration, it was still able to hold space in my head and invoke memories, albeit oblique and indistinct ones, when I finally sat down and really listened to it.
After a handful of casual listens, I stopped hearing the music through the filmy lens of near-memory and really started hearing it. And, to absolutely no one's surprise, what I heard was good. Really, really fucking good, in all honesty. On the surface, this is relatively simple, laidback music. It settles into comfortable, relaxed grooves that will settle into the background, if you allow it to.
But it's also deep, and inviting, with an expansive, almost oceanic quality that invites, even demands at times, your full attention. The subtle interplay between the elements is mesmerizing, and the sound itself is simply beautiful. Most intriguingly to me, the record has a strange, contradictory quality of being both timeless and completely of it its time.
Somehow it sounds as if it stands apart from everything, perfect and unparalleled, like some kind of Platonic form of music existing in a formless void, while at the same time conjuring visions of smoky clubs and sweaty nights in a Mad Men-esque past. That's a neat trick for any kind of art.
After a few weeks of near-constant rotation, I am well-versed in Kind of Blue. And I really like it. I'm not passionate about it, but I have a deep appreciation of it, and I know I'll continue to listen to it. I'm also pretty certain I'll be moving on to other Davis albums, and eventually further into the deep end of the jazz pool, as well.
So am I sorry that I didn't discover it before? No. I'm not. I think the younger versions of me would have found it a little too conventional (no fault of the record, that's just what happens when you're that damn influential for decades), a little too slow, maybe even ... boring. Maybe I would have even dismissed it as being too mainstream, or not "cool" enough at certain points (yes, I was kind of a douche about some things when I was younger; aren't we all?).
And that would have been a shame. Much better that I discover it at a time when I have the experience and patience to let it be what it is and appreciate it for those qualities. Because what it is is simply gorgeous and perfect in its own way, and I'm very pleased that I finally discovered it. Besides, I plan on living to eighty or so, so I still have 40 years -- equal to my lifetime so far -- to enjoy it and follow it where it leads me.
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